Rights Versus Wishes

Congress' budget debate would be much more honest, and perhaps more fruitful, if we clean up some of our thinking about what is a right and what isn't. People say they have rights to medical care, decent housing and food even if they can't pay for it. If these goodies aren't forthcoming, somehow their rights have been violated. Let's discuss rights.

Imagine that I meet an attractive young lady. I ask her to marry me. Suppose she says no, have my rights been violated? Or, suppose I ask to live in your house, and you say no, have you violated my rights to decent housing? Finally, suppose I ask you for a job, and you say, "No! I refuse to hire you because you're too tall, and I don't like tall people." Have you violated my rights? In any meaningful sense, of the term rights, none of these acts constitutes a violation of my rights.

True rights, such as those in our Constitution, exist simultaneously among people. The exercise of a right by one person does not diminish those held by another and imposes no obligations on others except those of non-interference. If I ask for a job, a person is no more obliged to enter into a work contract with me than they would be obliged to enter a marriage contract with me. By contrast if you and I enter into a work contract, or if a young lady agrees to marry me, and a third party initiates force to prevent the transaction, my rights have been violated.

To say people have rights to housing, medical care, and jobs is an absurd concept. Those "rights" can be realized only by governmental imposition of burdens on others. For government to guarantee a "right" to housing, it must diminish someone else's rights to their earnings. This modern vision of rights, if applied to my right to speech, worship and travel, would require government to force (tax) others to provide me with an auditorium, church and airfare.

If, instead, we called these new-fangled rights wishes, I'd be in agreement with most other Americans. I also wish everyone had decent housing, nutritious meals and good medical care. However, if we called them wishes, there'd be cognitive dissonance problems among people making the pretense of morality. The average American would cringe at the thought of government punishing one person because he refused to make someone else's wish come true. If I simply had a wish for a five bedroom house, and Congress told its agents at the IRS to take other people's money to make my wish come true, you wouldn't think much of Congress. Americans find it easier to live with their conscious, and find congressional initiation of force against others more palatable, if it were said I have a "right" to a five bedroom house. After all it's Congress' job to protect rights.

We can compare rights versus wishes another way. Suppose someone initiated force to prevent another from speaking and Williams privately stepped in to protect that person's right to speak. Would I be declared a hero or villain? Then suppose I saw a homeless person and did privately exactly what government does - initiate force to take someone's money to guarantee that homeless person's "right" to housing. What would you call me? In the first case, most would probably call me a hero and in the second I'd rightfully be called a despicable thief.

Separating wishes from rights has great relevance to today's federal budget debate. After all Congress' making wishes come true constitute two-thirds of federal spending. The nation's problem is there's not a single member of Congress who has the courage to point out that the moral route to a balanced budget is for Congress to protect rights not guarantee wishes.

Walter E. Williams
June 1, 1995
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